A Letter from Cambodia

Author: Michael L. Mara, M.D., '86

I went to dinner the night of September 11 in a little thatch-roofed restaurant on the shore of Lake Boeng Koek. Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, swelters through September with temperatures and humidity near the century mark. Boen Koek, on the outskirts of this crowded, polluted city, offers a cool evening breeze and good, cheap food. Though the little restaurant seats only about 20, the world is well represented each evening. Local Khmers (Cambodians) dine with ex-patriots and travelers from Vietnam, Thailand, Australia, England, Wales, Germany, France, Canada and America. Incongruously, this bamboo hut, perched over the shallow water on stilts, with no running water and a wood-fired stove, has a television. People of many nationalities gather here to watch the evening news on the BBC or CNN.

I can never forget the moment when all eyes, all the souls, in that room, turned to see the image of the planes striking the World Trade Center. The multilingual chatter fell silent, replaced moments later by gasps and sobs. As Americans, we feel this attack more poignantly than others. But everyone in that humble hut felt the pain of innocence, and innocents, dying before our eyes. Far from our homes, our sorrow was for America and for humanity.

The people of Southeast Asia have suffered greatly from unseen and unknowable enemies raining terror from the sky. They are in a special position to appreciate our pain. Over the following days, many Cambodians and Vietnamese have expressed their sorrow for “my country”, and asked if my family and friends are all right. No trace of resentment or hostility dilutes their expression of sadness.

The pain of watching these events unfold from so far away is the helpless frustration of watching a lovde one suffer. I wish I could be in America, donating blood, waving a flag, lighting a candle, doing something. But I have never been so proud to be an American. From the tirelessness of the firefighters to the children who make sandwiches for them, the world is seeing America at its best. These terrorists have “awakened the sleeping tiger” of American patriotism: America unified is a force no shadowy network can withstand.

Why do these people hate us? Clearly these are radical, militant fundamentalists who do not share our sacred view of human life. But these people are not insane, stupid or unhuman. Now that we are at war, every American must work to understand our enemy. These militants accuse us of exporting Western evils: greed, unchecked capitalism, a society devoid of morality. Perhaps in part we do this. But let the world know we also export the highest of human ideals: democracy, human rights, self-determination and the sanctity of human life. Which society is devoid of morality: one so intolerant that a woman may be shot for uncovering her face or one so free that an Islamic militant may enroll in flight school?

We must examine ourselves, our nation and Western culture. We must study our policies in the Arab world, our blind support of sometimes brutal Israeli actions and our addiction to the convenience of the automobile. How have our policies and lifestyle helped create a world where anti-American militants can enjoy such widespread support?

As the news on CNN becomes more and more hopeless, I have allowed my initial sadness to become a controlled and purposeful anger. As a nation, we deserve justice. As humans, we deserve not to live in fear. America will lead the war that will bring those responsible to justice and deter like-minded terrorists in the future. Let us remember, however, that our enemy is not Islam, Arabs, Afghans or Iraquis. Our enemy is the terrorist network and governments behind this attack. We must acknowledge that most casualties in this war will be people who have little interest, much less resentment, toward the United States.

I’ve been thinking about the difference between terror and horror.

Terror (and its attendant action, terrorism) leads to fear, panic, chaos, a lack of purposefulness — abandonment of our desired course of action. A feeling of futility, a desire to give up, a desire to flee.

This is not what our country experienced.

We experienced horror: a severe pain, a knowledge that things are not right, wrong in ways we could not imagine they could go wrong. Indignation, moral outrage, a desire to right the wrong, to seek justice. This horror will not deter us from our course of action, our way of life. Rather, it has served to focus, to galvanize, to temper, a fearsome resolve.
Therefore, this terrorist act has failed in its ultimate goal. Though our loss is everlasting, the fear and chaos are temporary and will largely be cleared with the rubble. World-wide unity and resolve must arise and bring about justice and freedom from terrorism. By a commitment to justice, and not hate, we will show the world that terrorism has failed.

Dr. Mara is an orthopedic surgeon, with a specialty in hand surgery, who practices medicine in Bend, Oregon. For the past few months, he has been doing volunteer surgery in Cambodia and Vietnam.